One evening in early October, my wife and I were in the kitchen, half-listening to MSNBC, when I suddenly found myself riveted to the screen. There was Hillary Clinton, in a speech given earlier that day in Toledo, linking Donald Trump’s tax code manipulations and other examples of corporate abuse—big banks creating phony customer accounts, Big Pharma jacking up drug prices—to a broader critique of growing corporate monopoly power. That power, Clinton said, “threatens business of all sizes, as well as consumers. With less competition, corporations can use their power to raise prices, limit choice for consumers, cut wages for workers, crowd out start-ups and small businesses. . . . As president, I will appoint tough, independent authorities to strengthen antitrust enforcement and really scrutinize mergers and acquisitions, so the big don’t keep getting bigger and bigger.”
My first reaction was to give my wife a fist bump. As longtime readers of the Washington Monthly know, we’ve been hammering away at the issue of market concentration and the need for stronger federal competition policies for more than fifteen years. Finally, our white-whale-like issue has made it to the forefront of the national political debate.
My second reaction was to think, Why did Clinton wait until five weeks before the election to bring this up? In a campaign that is supposedly all about the economy, inequality, and populist anger, isn’t an idea as big as going after corporate monopolies something to build your economic message around from the beginning, rather than tossing it out, almost as an afterthought, at the end?
But then my third reaction was, Don’t go blaming Hillary. At least she is talking about the issue. None of the other 2016 presidential candidates did. Not Bernie Sanders, who had much to say about breaking up the big banks but never suggested expanding that idea to other sectors of the economy that are in many cases more monopolized than banking. Not the two short-lived Democratic contenders, Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb—and Lord knows those two could have used an idea to make them stand out. And certainly not any of the seventeen GOP hopefuls, including the eventual nominee, Donald Trump (who finally did raise the consolidation issue, two weeks after Hillary).
The failure of the antitrust issue to garner any serious political attention until the end of the campaign is an object lesson in the difficulty of opening the Overton Window—academese for the range of ideas deemed politically respectable enough to consider publicly. For most of the last decade-plus, the Washington Monthly and our partners at New America’s Open Markets Program were pretty much voices in the wilderness on the issue of corporate consolidation and antitrust policy. Then, beginning a few years ago, several leading economists, including Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Jason Furman, and Peter Orszag, joined the crusade. So too did a couple of other think tanks, including the Roosevelt Institute and the Center for American Progress. In recent months other thought leader publications, including the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the New Republic, and Democracy, have picked up on the consolidation trend and published important pieces on its dangers.
Yet the issue has barely penetrated the mainstream press and has been virtually absent from the country’s larger political debate. In fact, it’s been decades since political leaders and mainstream reporters engaged in a real examination of monopoly and antitrust policy. Most of them do not have the intellectual background to even discuss it.
I saw a stark example of that on MSNBC that night. After running the clip from Clinton’s speech, host Chris Hayes asked his guest, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a typically insightful question about how the decline of antitrust policies might be behind declining wages and rising inequality. Brown responded as if he had no idea what Hayes was talking about, shifting the discussion to more familiar causes like outsourcing and tax policy.
You can understand why presidential candidates might be reluctant to talk to voters about a complex, deep-in-the-source-code issue like antitrust enforcement that even their Senate colleagues don’t quite grasp. Sometime soon, however, we are bound to have the big national debate on monopoly power the country needs. One reason, as Phillip Longman argues in the current issue (see “How to Make Conservatism Great Again” here), is that while Democrats have been the first to seize on the issue, Republicans are likely to figure out that it’s also perfect for their Trumpian base. After all, Trump voters don’t give a hoot about the big corporate donors who give the establishment party its marching orders and who profit most from monopoly rents. And those voters live in the towns and second-tier metro areas that are being robbed of their locally owned employers by giant firms based mainly in the liberal bastions on the coasts, like New York and San Francisco.
Another reason is that toughening antitrust enforcement can be done without congressional approval, something the next president is unlikely to get much of. That’s also true of the subset of antitrust policy that has to do with the politically red-hot issue of high prescription drug costs, as Alicia Mundy makes clear in her months-in-the-making cover investigation (see “Just the Medicine” here).
One way or another, you’re going to end up reading a lot more about antitrust policy soon, and not just in the pages of the Washington Monthly.